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Endellion String Quartet embarks on final season of Cambridge residency - review

The renowned Endellion String Quartet last year celebrated the 40th anniversary of its foundation, and 2019-20 is to be the final season of the Cambridge residency it has held since 1991.

The Endellion String Quartet. (20066281)
The Endellion String Quartet. (20066281)

During the length of time they’ve been in existence, the Endellions have performed much of the extensive available repertoire, and to mark their valedictory year at Cambridge they are offering audiences a wonderful opportunity to hear the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets, one of the great (some would say the greatest) sequences of music literature.

And who better to reveal its monumentality than the Endellion String Quartet, for many and for so long a benchmark for excellence in the genre.

Two works featured in the recital last evening (Wednesday, October 24), the second of the three Razumovsky quartets (Op.59 No.2) from Beethoven’s middle period (named for the Russian ambassador in Vienna who commissioned them), and one of the late ones, the B flat major Op. 130, which was written shortly before the composer’s death.

Count Razumovsky had stipulated that a Russian folk tune be included in each of the quartets that now commemorate his name. In the one we heard last night, Beethoven does this in his inventive 3rd movement, taking musical liberties with a patriotic anthem, and writing also into the composition passages where the performers are made to seem lost in confusion, his playful gibe at Razumovsky’s expense maybe?

Just prior to this, however, comes an altogether different movement of great serenity, where a simple use of the musical scale and pulsing clock-like passages combine to suggest perhaps two worlds, one beyond time and the other beholden to it.

Razumovsky two was a very good place to start, displaying Beethoven in the fullness of powers he was employing contemporaneously to produce some of his most significant instrumental and symphonic compositions; the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the 4th piano concerto, the Eroica Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Signs of his hearing loss were already evident, however, and the B flat major quartet in the second half of the concert progresses through five movements to a monumental 6th, the powerful and complex Große Fuge, where the music seems to have been entirely internalised. It’s as though a primary loss of connection with the world has driven the composer to a prospect in the mind itself.

Beethoven would replace this taxing, lengthy and perhaps somewhat unbalancing finale with an alternative one, eventually allowing the original to stand separately as a work in its own right. However, the Endellions approached it as originally conceived.

To watch them tackle this movement (and ‘tackle’ is not used lightly) is to be filled with admiration not only for the level of their musicianship, but also for the physical effort and stamina they are able to summon; and this after a couple of hours of sustained concentration of the most demanding kind.

The alternative fugues for the opus 130 have their several devotees. But there is an authenticity about the Große Fuge which, musical qualities aside, displays a sense of persistence amidst the struggles, the adversities of life with which its composer was all too well acquainted. It is an extraordinary piece and was amazingly performed.

The Endellion Quartet continues its journey on November 20 with three more quartets, two early and one late. On no account to be missed.

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